April 29, 2003
By Trish Jones, Advocate Staff Writer
It's the fall of 2002, and you're an attractive, popular senior at Cleveland High School. You're busy, active at your church, in the band, the drill team, a member of the National Honor Society, looking forward to graduation and then college.
Now, however, a lot of your energy is channeled into band practice. With UIL contest coming up quickly, it's practice, practice, and more practice. That's okay. Being a member of the Cleveland Royal Braves Marching Band is well worth the hours of effort. Besides that, it's just fun.
There's a problem, though. That energy you need seems to be fading rapidly. You're always tired, no matter how much rest you get the night before. And your vision - there's something odd happening there, too. The notes on the sheet music in front of you blur, then seem to multiply - suddenly, there's two of everything.
You've gone to several doctors over the past few weeks, trying to identify the problem. Each doctor ships you off to another specialist for another examination: They just can't seem to figure it out. Finally, one of the specialists sends you to a hospital for comprehensive blood work and an MRI. Now, that's a little spooky. Just what are they looking for?
Well, whatever. It's the Thursday before Saturday's UIL band competition. You're in school, trying to concentrate on books, while mentally you're rehearsing the complicated marching patterns. Suddenly, an aide appears to escort you to the office, where your mother stands. "You have a doctor's appointment. Right now," she says.
An hour later, in the doctor's office, you are shaking your head, wondering if you've just lost your hearing as well as your eyesight. Your mother sits beside you, speechless.
"I'm afraid it's multiple sclerosis," says the doctor. "I need you in the hospital now. You need to begin treatment immediately."
It doesn't register. "But I can't," you say. "Contest is Saturday, I've got to be there."
The doctor is sympathetic, but firm. "You must begin treatment immediately. You'll be in the hospital for five days, receiving steroids intravenously. That should reduce the symptoms."
Well, will this cure MS? "There is no cure," says the doctor. "We can treat symptoms, and frequently prevent them from recurring for long periods of time. But, for now, there is no cure."
"You" are Erica Coats, daughter of Niki and Teresa Coats of Cleveland. And for Erica, it isn't a story, or even a nightmare - it is real life.
Since that fateful day last October, Erica has become a walking encyclopedia of information and statistics about multiple sclerosis. With her symptoms in remission, she is back to her full, busy life, complicated slightly by the need to take medication three times a week by injection.
Erica can quote from official literature published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. The symptoms include blurred or double vision, numbness or tingling in the limbs and can become as severe as paralysis or total loss of vision. Diagnosis usually occurs between the ages of 20 and 50, but the unpredictable physical and emotional effects are life long."
"It hasn't really changed anything," says Erica. She says she's learned how to give herself injections, and to monitor her own general health.
"Stress can aggravate the symptoms," Erica says, "and so can heat. I still struggle with being tired a lot, so I'm taking a prescription for fatigue."
Erica, who has prepared full programs on multiple sclerosis for presentation to various classes at school, explains the use of medications.
"The four available medications are not a cure, but they do slow regression," she says, noting that all of them are given by self-injection. Erica says there is hope that in the near future research will lead to other ways of administering the drugs, either by skin patch, orally, or even by inhalant.
"I'm just glad she was born at a time when such medications were even available," says Erica's mother, Teresa Coats. "Ten years ago, these drugs weren't approved, and there was little that could be done to prevent regression."
Mrs. Coats said she was "shocked, devastated, and scared" when she first learned of her daughter's disease. Stating that, as a mother, she's "concerned" about Erica going off to college in the fall, she still says "Erica is such a responsible person, I know she will take care of herself."
Erica has been accepted into the school of business at the University of Texas, Austin campus.
"It's the hardest one to get in to," says Erica with a smile, "so I thought if I could make it in that, I could make it in any other discipline I choose to enter at a later date."
The attractive young woman is matter-of-fact about her disease.
"Look," she says, "it's not fatal. There is no cure, but it is treatable. It doesn't have to shut you down."
Even during that initial week of diagnosis and treatment, when Erica was in the hospital receiving steroids to reduce the optic nerve inflammation causing her blurred vision while the Royal Braves band was marching in UIL contest, she displayed her calm nature.
"One of my friend's moms called me on the phone and let me listen while the band marched," says Erica. "At least I got to hear them."
And that didn't make you cry? Erica shakes her head while her mother smiles. "Erica's not very emotional," says Coats.
Erica's smile is pretty wide, however, as she talks about what happened the day after the Royal Braves band was awarded top honors at the UIL contest.
"Mr. Kelly (Cleveland's band director) and the other directors came to my hospital room," says Erica. "They brought the trophy with them, so I could see it. In fact, they left it with me for a while."
One gets the impression from this self-contained young woman that she may well earn many trophies of one type or another during her lifetime.
Erica encourages anyone who wants more information about multiple sclerosis to go online and check the following website: www.nationalmssociety.org.
Copyright © Cleveland Advocate 2003